On July 18th, 2021, Mandela Day was observed and people across the globe were encouraged to spend 67 minutes donating their time and efforts to benefit others. Lockdown laws in South Africa and elsewhere limited how people could traditionally gather as companies, organizations and communities to contribute their 67 minutes. But, as it turned out, South Africans in parts of the country did spend Sunday, July 18th together doing their bit. Many gathered to continue their efforts to clean up the devastation that remained after a week of looting and violence that had brought KwaZulu-Natal to its knees and threatened to do the same to Gauteng, the economic heartland of the country. Mandela would have been heartbroken by the week that led up to this Mandela Day. But as the week drew to a close and the violence calmed, his heart would have warmed at the sight of the residents of these Provinces coming together to clean up each other’s neighborhoods, streets and cities. The events that preceded Mandela Day were both warnings of the fragility of our democracy and a reminder that it is the people who hold this democracy to count, guard it and clean it up.
Ten days before Mandela Day, former President Jacob Zuma spent his first day in jail following his arrest the night before for contempt of court. The Constitutional Court had sentenced him to 15 months in prison for this charge.
Mr. Zuma’s arrest led to calls for his immediate release and threats of bringing the country to a standstill. In KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province and where much of his support lies, protests began and eventually resulted in mass looting that brought the economy in the Province to a standstill. The looting soon spread to parts of Gauteng. Shopping malls were gutted, supermarkets were destroyed, warehouses and distribution centers were cleaned out, trucking routes were blocked and livestock and crops on farms were stolen or destroyed leading to a food crisis that is still ongoing.
The police were largely powerless in stopping the masses of looters. In many areas, residents took it upon themselves to defend the businesses in their communities. In some areas, streets were blocked off. These makeshift checkpoints were guarded by armed civilians who demanded proof of residence before entry. In some areas, the residents manning the checkpoints have been accused of racially profiling anyone who wanted to pass through. In parts of Durban, violence broke out between the Indian and black residents resulting in a number of murders. In other areas, local taxi drivers led the guard with residents outside shops and malls to prevent further looting. The army was eventually called in to support the police and the looting stopped. A few thousand people were and have subsequently been arrested including individuals who have been accused of instigating the protests, violence and looting in order to destabilize the country (and force the release of Mr. Zuma).
Once calm was restored, residents took to the streets – this time to clean up the destruction. After a week of lawlessness, violence and desperation, it was this sight, of people from all walks of life, ages and races, who lived in the affected areas and others who didn’t, cleaning up the streets and shops and malls that would have made Mandela smile.